Hsuan-sha's One Bright Pearl

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O.

300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 15
Featured from Mountain Record, Fall 1996


The Main Case

The great master Hsuan-sha was once asked by a monk, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl.1 How can I understand the meaning of this?" 2 Hsuan-sha said, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?"3 On the following day Hsuan-sha said to the monk,4 "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How do you understand the meaning of this?" 5 The monk replied, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?"6 Hsuan-sha said, "Now I know that you are living inside a cave of demons on the black mountain."7

The Commentary

When our lives are not free of fixed positions we drown in a sea of poison. Following after another's words and mimicking others' actions is the practice of monkeys and parrots. Zen practitioners should be able to show some fresh provisions of their own. Be that as it may, you should understand that even in the cave of demons on the black mountain the one bright pearl's radiance is not diminished.

The Capping Verse

The question came from the cave of demons -
The master answered with a mudball.
Beyond telling, absolutely beyond telling,
Ultimately we can only nod to ourselves.

Footnotes

1. Tens of thousands know it, but how many have realized it?
2. What is the meaning of meaning?
3. There's no place to take hold of this, yet it is sure to be misunderstood.
4. When he raises his head, I can see horns. Be careful here.
5. First he inflicts a flesh wound, now he goes for the throat.
6. This monk is not very alert. He sees a pit and jumps into it.
7. Hsuan-sha is a competent teacher of our school. Why doesn't he just drive him out?

300 Koan Shobogenzo is a collection of koans gathered by Dogen Zenji during his study in China. The koans from this collection, often called the Chinese Shobogenzo, appear extensively in the essays of Dogen's Japanese Shobogenzo. These koans have not been available in English translation but are currently being translated and prepared for publication by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Abbot John Daido Loori. Abbot Loori has added a commentary, capping verse and footnotes to each koan.


In Shobogenzo (Treasury of True Dharma Eye) Master Dogen used this koan as the starting point for a whole fascicle, "Ikkyamyoju," devoted to the "one bright pearl." In his 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Dogen included another koan centering on this image of completeness and perfection - "Nan-ch'uan's Storehouse of the Mani Pearl." Clearly, the koan "one bright pearl" was an important and evocative image by which Dogen could illustrate an important Dharma point.

Most literally, ju in ikkyamyoju means a Buddhist rosary bead. It can also be translated as pearl, the great cosmic gem, or jewel. Myo means brilliant or bright. The phrase, as translated in the Shobogenzo, is "one bright pearl."

In Chinese legends, a pearl was frequently associated with a ferocious dragon, the protector of the precious gem. In statues and paintings, the jewel is tucked under the dragon's chin or clasped in his claws. With the advent of Buddhism, this gem gradually became synonymous with the teachings of the Dharma.

According to Dogen, Hsuan-sha (Jap., Gensha) was the originator of the phrase "one bright pearl." Hsuan-sha lived in China in the ninth century, during the Golden Age of Zen. He was a student of Hsueh-feng (Jap., Seppo) and was one of the most accomplished descendents in Hsueh-feng's lineage. Unlike many of those involved in Zen during that time, Hsuan-sha did not come from the elite class, was not a scholar, and was not familiar with the sutras. He was a fisherman who enjoyed the solitary time he spent in his boat on the lakes and rivers.

When Hsuan-sha decided to study the Dharma, he found Hsueh-feng and wholeheartedly dedicated himself to his practice. At one point though, he decided to visit other masters to perfect his understanding. He packed his traveling bag, but just as he was setting out on his journey, he stubbed his toe on a rock. The wound was extremely painful and it began to bleed. Quite unexpectedly, at that very moment he had a realization experience. He said, "This body does not exist, so where is the pain coming from?" He turned around and went back to the monastery. Hsueh-feng asked him, "Did you go on a pilgrimage to cut your foot and have a difficult time?" Hsuan-sha was serious. He said, "Please don't jest with me." Hsueh-feng asked, "Why don't you continue your journey?" Hsuan-sha answered, "Bodhidharma didn't come to China and the second ancestor didn't go to India." Hsueh-feng detected some understanding in this answer. Thereafter, Hsuan-sha stayed with Hsueh-feng and never studied with anyone else. He lived a very simple life, so much so that Hsueh-feng used to call him "the ascetic."

When I read about Hsuan-sha, he reminds me of my first teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, who also liked living a simple and rigorous life. As a monk he was unusually dedicated to practice. Sometimes he sat for days. I was fascinated by the fact that he never left the zendo. Once, during a sesshin, I got up several times in the middle of the night. Waking up, I wondered, "Is he still sitting?" My room was not far from the zendo so I would creep down the hall and check. There he was, always sitting like a rock. He never did kinhin, rarely took meals. He just sat twenty-four hours at a time. Sometimes he would disappear for months, simply to sit. He regularly did hermitage retreats, a hundred days long being his favorite length.

He disliked seeing things wasted, especially food. While staying in New York City, he actually walked along the streets and picked up discarded banana peels and apple cores, took them home, washed them, put them over his morning gruel and ate them. Nothing was garbage to him. One of the cooks at the monastery where I was studying told me that Soen would walk into the kitchen when they were working and check the scrap bucket where all the wilted leaves of lettuce and the ends of carrots and other vegetables normally got thrown away. Soen would start pulling things out, saying, "This is not garbage, this is not garbage." Then he would take the whole collected batch, wash it, chop it up and it would end up in the soup.

Soen was like this from the beginning of his practice. The other monks who were training at Ryutaku-ji with him would complain to their teacher and abbot, Gempo Roshi. But Gempo Roshi must have had some sense that Soen was a special monk and allowed him to do his hundred-day solo retreats and a lot of other things that monks in Japan normally wouldn't get away with. Soen had a very fresh way of looking at the Dharma that made him an exciting and effective teacher.

Hsuan-sha was like that too. Dogen says of him: "Hsuan-sha always wore simple cloth robes full of patches. Beneath he wore paper or mugwort [leaves of weeds] underwear. When he began teaching, he always made the statement, 'The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl.' "

The monk in this koan decided to ask Hsuan-sha about this statement so he could understand it more clearly. He said, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How can I understand the meaning of this?" Hsuan-sha answered, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?"

Do you see the subtlety going on in this dialogue? If, indeed, the entire universe is just one thing, then the notion of meaning or understanding becomes a contradiction. There is no way to understand. When we talk of meaning or understanding we are of necessity talking about separation. We have to step back from what we are trying to understand to look at it, analyze it and describe it. In the intimacy of the "one bright pearl" there is no way to do that. Appreciating this, Hsuan-sha asked, "Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?"

The following day Hsuan-sha decided to test the monk and asked him, "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How do you understand the meaning of this?" The monk answered just as Hsuan-sha had the day before: "The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?" This time Hsuan-sha continued, "Now I know that you are living inside a cave of demons on the black mountain." Here, the cave represents darkness and demons stand for deluded beings. Hsuan-sha's statement means that this monk is ignorant but, even in that deluded state, he is living within the reality of the one bright pearl. There is no place this pearl doesn't reach. There is nothing outside of it.

A similar dialogue took place between Master Nan-ch'uan and Luzu. Luzu said to Nan-ch'uan, "Nobody recognizes the mani pearl, but there is one in the storehouse of the Tathagata." Nan-ch'uan replied, "Myself and yourself, coming and going are nothing but that." Me and you, our comings, our goings, are nothing other than that storehouse. Luzu said, "What about those who do not come and go?" In other words, what about those who are not separated, who are not coming and going? Nan-ch'uan said, "They are in the storehouse too." Luzu said, "Then what is the pearl?" Nan-ch'uan called out, "Luzu!" Luzu said, "Yes, Master." Nan-ch'uan said, "Go away. You don't understand what I mean." At that moment, Luzu had an insight. What this koan points to is what Hsuan-sha tried to get the monk to see.

Dogen said: One bright pearl expresses reality. It contains the inexhaustible past existing throughout time and arriving in the present. Presently there is a body and mind. They are one bright pearl. The stalk of grass, a tree, the mountains and rivers of this world are not only themselves, they are the one bright pearl.

This statement is key to appreciating what this koan is addressing. We routinely get stuck in dualities. Our tendency is to fall into one side or the other. Our minds work dualistically almost out of necessity. We constantly hear the same point being made in talk after talk yet nobody seems to get it. We need to appreciate the fact that both sides of reality exist simultaneously. The stalks of grass, a tree, the mountains and rivers of this world have not only their own individuality but they are also the one bright pearl. That is hard to grasp because the two views seem mutually exclusive. What we are talking about is a thing being unified with the whole universe and, at the same time, having its own distinctive characteristics and karma. Both aspects exist at once. How do you understand that? Realization is seeing that point clearly.

The metaphor of the Diamond Net of Indra is the finest way I know of appreciating this point. In the diamond net each diamond is an individual and has an existence of its own. Yet, each is also interconnected with every other diamond in the universe. Within each diamond you can see every other diamond. Each diamond contains every other diamond. They are mutually arising. When one diamond arises, the entire diamond net arises. You move just one diamond and the entire net of diamonds moves. This phenomenon exists not only in the three dimensions of space but also extends in the fourth dimension of time. In the diamond net time moves into the past and future. To affect a single particle of this universe is to affect its totality - past, present, and future. When you see the diamond net in its totality, it is just this one bright pearl.

Every particle, every event is interpenetrated, codependent, mutually arising, with mutual causality. What happens to one thing happens to all things. That is the nature of the universe, the nature of the self. That is Buddha-nature; that is who we are. Whether we realize it or not, that is the way the world functions. When we live our lives out of the deluded notion of separateness, inevitably we clash with the natural order of the universe. We run into difficulty, pain, misfortune and suffering. And that too is the one bright pearl.

Dogen said: Although the monk still seemed to be bound by karmic consciousness when he asked, how do we interpret that, actually, even that state is manifesting the great function which is the great dharma.

The monk's way of dealing with his teacher's statement was to simply accept and mimic it. There was no genuine attempt at understanding it. That is where he got lost. Even so, in his misunderstanding, he was still manifesting the one bright pearl.

The commentary says: When our lives are not free of fixed positions we drown in a sea of poison. It is precisely the fixed position that turns truth into something stagnant. It is precisely when we grab on to something that we turn medicine into sickness, and clarity into poison. We create with our minds a reality that does not in fact exist and is contrary to who we are, to our own Buddha-nature. We do that with everything. Holding on doesn't only happen within the domain of the secular world; it happens in the spiritual world too. Right in the midst of Buddha-dharma, in our practice, the habit of grabbing on to views and beliefs and clinging to them continues. Just because we put on a robe and a rakusu doesn't mean that our deepest conditioning miraculously disappears. We just find ourselves holding onto robes and rakusus, the precepts or the liturgy. We cling to holiness, spirituality, perfection and Zen. The minute we grab onto anything we separate ourselves. In order to attach to something you need two things. When you are really unified with it, there is no way to attach to it. You are the thing itself.

Following after another's words and mimicking others' actions is the practice of monkeys and parrots. Unfortunately, most of what we call education is exactly that - parroting and regurgitating information. There is no creativity, freshness or aliveness. This comes up frequently in koan study. What koan study aims at is to get students to take a new and unique approach to what they see in a koan, to make the koan their own. For example: A monk asked Chao-chou, "What is Buddha?" Chao-chou said, "Three pounds of flax." Students working with this koan replace the "flax" with something else, something equivalent. They mimic Chao-chou and make the same point. What is Chao-chou really saying when he says, "three pounds of flax?" Leap out of the vessel created by Chao-chou. Create your own vessel and display it. If we constantly repeat what we hear from others, the Dharma becomes stagnant and dies. It does not evolve as the culture evolves. The Dharma has stayed alive for 2500 years because it was transmitted mind-to-mind. We didn't hand down sutras or dogma from generation to generation; we handed down the vital mind-to-mind teachings. This means that in each generation it is possible for the Dharma to manifest in accord with the circumstances. We are now in our third generation for many Zen lineages in America. There are many teachers and many books. We have become a sophisticated group of practitioners and there is a lot to choose from.

There are plenty of exciting and troublesome aspects of American Zen. We have people teaching koans who have never passed a koan in their life. They may have an intellectual grasp of what the koan is about but this has nothing to do with realization of the koan. We even have scholars publishing commentaries on koans. This usually means the death of a koan. You can reach only an intellectual understanding by taking a college course on Buddhism.

Dharma is dark to the mind but radiant to the heart. When you do an intellectual presentation of a koan, the presentation is radiant to the mind but dark to the heart; and it is seeing with the heart that makes the teachings transformative and changes our way of perceiving ourselves and the universe. We need to be able to realize the teaching in order to show some of our own fresh provisions.

The last line in the commentary says, Be that as it may, you should understand that even in the cave of demons on the black mountain the one bright pearl's radiance is not diminished. Although situations may seem to change, everything is always the one bright pearl. Knowing that the pearl reaches everywhere is the experience of the one bright pearl. In this manner we encounter the pearl's sounds and forms. This reaching everywhere is the pearl's nature. Dogen said: Even if doubts arise or if we affirm, negate or are puzzled by its existence these are only partial, incomplete observations. Do we not cherish the infinite brilliance of the bright pearl? Who can surpass the virtue of this brilliant, radiant pearl that covers the universe?

I added footnotes to clarify this koan. In the first line the monk said to Hsuan-sha, The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. The footnote says, Tens of thousands know it but how many have realized it? It's easy to say we have realized it, but hard to really realize it. The second line says, How can I understand the meaning of this? The footnote says, What is the meaning of meaning?

I included this footnote because it reminded me of a radio program I used to listen to back in the seventies, Lex Hixon's In the Spirit on WBAI, a progressive station out of New York City. Lex was wonderful as the moderator of that program because he had a naive way of dealing with spirituality that made him a very lively spiritual teacher himself. He asked the things you wanted to know about, the questions you wanted to ask. Lex had different masters and gurus as guests on the show every Sunday and it was my Sunday routine to listen. One morning he was interviewing a Zen master, asking many questions and getting answers.

The teacher mentioned meditation so Lex suggested, "How about leading us in meditation?" Now, meditation on a radio show is pretty deadly. However, the teacher consented and asked everyone to sit up straight. He then hit the gong three times and everything got quiet. I guess the studio engineer piped in some bird songs so that people scanning the dial would know that something was going on. The tweeting of birds lasted two or three minutes when suddenly Lex asked in a quiet voice, "Roshi, what is the meaning of this?" Silence. The Roshi cleared his throat and said, "What is the meaning? What is the meaning? What is the meaning of meaning? There's even a book called What Is the Meaning of Meaning. Time to shut up and sit!" That phrase popped into my head when I heard the monk in this koan looking for the meaning of "one bright pearl."

In the next line Hsuan-sha answered, The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this? The footnote says, There's no place to take hold of this, yet it is sure to be misunderstood. The next line states, On the following day Hsuan-sha said to the monk... The footnote says, When he raises his head, I can see horns. Be careful here. Then, The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How do you understand the meaning of this? The footnote says, First he inflicts a flesh wound, now he goes for the throat. The monk replied, The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this? The footnote says, This monk is not very alert. He sees a pit and jumps into it. In the last line Hsuan-sha said, Now I know that you are living inside a cave of demons on the black mountain. The footnote says, Hsuan-sha is a competent teacher of our school. Why doesn't he just drive him out? Keep in mind that the last line is not only disapproving of the monk, but also teaching him. Hsuan-sha is not only saying, "You are missing it;" he is also saying, "Though you are missing it, this too is one bright pearl."

The Capping Verse to this koan says:

The question came from the cave of demons -
The master answered with a mudball.
Beyond telling, absolutely beyond telling,
Ultimately we can only nod to ourselves.

The monk was in the cave of demons and the master answered with a mudball. Referring to his own teacher, Dogen once said, "My late master even used the mudball to explain the one bright pearl to his students." What does it mean to use the mudball? In Zen literature you find reference to offering any kind of teaching as playing with mudballs. In order to talk about the Dharma you need to separate yourself from it. In order to point to it, you need to be separate from it. There is no way for any teacher, the Buddha included, to avoid wallowing in the mud in order to communicate the teachings. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. The mudball referred to here is what Hsuan-sha said to the monk: Why is it necessary to understand this?

Beyond telling, absolutely beyond telling. Needless to say, this refers to the fact that the heart of the Buddha-dharma cannot be communicated. We can explain it, but it doesn't make sense. Or we grab onto the words and ideas that describe it, and think that is it, that we have it. Words and ideas will satisfy us for awhile, but sooner or later we begin to realize that they don't impart any strength, change our lives or transform our way of seeing things. This kind of understanding is just more information. Somehow it is not enough. It doesn't fulfill our spiritual hunger.

Ultimately we can only nod to ourselves. The reason we can only nod to ourselves is that there is nobody else in the whole universe. If you contain everything, there is no one outside. There is no one to acknowledge or communicate with, there is no one to give and nothing to receive.

Dogen has a beautiful and powerful way of talking about this. He said: When the right time comes the essence of the bright pearl can be grasped. It is suspended in emptiness, hidden in the lining of clothes, found under the chin of dragons and in the headdresses of kings. This pearl is always inside our clothing (inside our real nature). Never attempt to wear it on the surface. It should be kept in headdresses and under jaws. When you are drunk (in a state of delusion) there will be a close friend who will give you a pearl (the Buddhist teaching) and you must, without fail, give the same reward to your close friend. When the pearl is placed around the neck the person is always drunk. Even in one's present deluded state one is still in the universe of one bright pearl. Although situations seem to change, everything is always the one bright pearl.

When you realize the one bright pearl, you transform your life. When you don't realize it, it's still there. It's why you are here, realized or not. Some of us will go to our graves never having realized it, but the fact is we are always making the journey with that one bright pearl. Our practice is to discover that pearl. It can't be given; it can't be received. But it can be discovered, and the way you discover it is to strip off all of the extra, all the excess baggage. When everything is gone, when there is nothing else to let go of - there it is! The one bright pearl. Your life, my life, the life of the entire universe.

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